EMI for start-ups: no time like the present to start-up your scheme

This post is part of our Entrepreneurial team’s regular series of blogs.

With each passing year it seems that start-ups become ever more prevalent.

Although the economy has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the technology industry has experienced considerable growth. Entrepreneurs are seeing the opportunities that remote working brings and are looking to take advantage of gaps in the market. With the technology sector not looking like it is going to slow down anytime soon, how can your start-up find the difference that will ensure that it succeeds against all of the competition?

Although there is not one ultimate answer to success, having the right team is crucial. In fact, not having the right team has been found to be one of the top reasons for failure among many start-ups.

This is why the Enterprise Management Incentive (“EMI”) option scheme is such a valuable tool for young, growing businesses. With a work environment that often requires substantial commitment and hours, but with limited funds to reward employees for their efforts, granting tax advantageous EMI options can be a way for companies to attract and keep that team that will lead them to success.

So, when is the best time to start thinking about granting EMI options? Arguably the sooner the better. EMI options are granted following a valuation of the company’s shares which is agreed with HMRC. With unapproved (e.g. non-EMI) share options, the employee is subject to income tax and national insurance contributions on the difference between the value of the shares when the option is exercised and the option exercise price they pay, but with EMI options there is no income tax and national insurance charge due on this gain (as long as the exercise price is equal to or higher than the pre-agreed market value) – i.e. the gain made between the dates the options are granted and exercised is free of income tax and NICs (but it will be subject to the, lower, capital gains tax  charge – see below).

There will be capital gains tax on the eventual sale of the shares obtained through the options, but if 2 years have passed between the date of the grant of the options and the disposal then the EMI option holders may, if they qualify, be able to claim Business Asset Disposal Relief (previously Entrepreneurs’ Relief), providing an effective tax rate on the gain of only 10% on the first £1m of gain per individual.

So, with your employees having the prospect of reaping these rewards further down the line, EMI options are a valuable tool for incentivising staff and driving growth in your company.

If you are a very new start-up and, therefore, pre-revenue and yet to raise external investment (other than perhaps from friends and family) there really is no time like the present for incentivising and rewarding your current employees or encouraging others to join your team. In these circumstances, this can lead to a very low valuation of the shares for the purpose of granting EMI options; possibly the nominal value of the shares (usually 0.01p depending on what your share capital is divided into).

EMI option schemes are also worth considering at a later stage after initial investment has already been raised. In many cases, a company might issue options every year as a recruitment and retention tool. EMI schemes are a cost-effective and tax-friendly way for SMEs to incentivise employees, where the value of the company is expected to increase dramatically as the company grows.

If you are a start-up and have already started thinking about the best ways to incentivise and build your team or if you are further along in the process and want to grow your company even further, EMI options should always be considered. If you would like to pursue the possibility of this, please contact us in the Entrepreneurial Tax team here at C+T and we would be very happy to help.

Business must prepare for R&D tax relief crackdown

In this blog, Dave Philp Head of R&D at Chiene + Tait outlines the implications of a potential clampdown on spurious research and development claims to HMRC.

R&D (Research and Development) Tax Relief, introduced in 2000 to encourage more company investment into innovation, is more popular than ever. In 2017-18, UK companies submitted over 48,000 claims for R&D tax credits. A total of £4.3bn in tax relief was secured, an increase of £1bn from the previous year. Here in Scotland, £175m in R&D tax relief was secured by businesses in 2017-18. While this rise in claims is positive, suggesting more UK businesses are focusing on innovation as a way to make themselves competitive, there are also concerns about illegitimate claims being submitted.

HMRC is now taking steps to combat fraudulent claims, reporting that it has already identified and prevented half a billion pounds of fraud linked to R&D tax credits. Last year the Government announced it would re-introduce the PAYE and NIC cap on SME payable credits, a move aimed at preventing fraud within structures set up to claim a tax credit despite there being no evidence of UK-based innovation activity or job creation.

Following the internal re-structuring of HMRC’s R&D tax teams last Autumn, it was also announced in the Queen’s speech that the Government would create a single, beefed-up, anti-tax evasion unit to cover all taxes and introduce new anti-avoidance measures. This potential forthcoming clampdown on R&D tax credit abuse in the UK follows a similar process carried out in Australia in 2018 which sent shockwaves through that country’s software sector. The Australian Government’s crackdown had significant impact with companies, including the tech firm Airtasker, being ordered to pay back millions of dollars they had received in R&D tax breaks.

While a number of businesses there were caught on the hop, the Australian Tax Office had made clear a year earlier of their intention to review R&D claims from software companies. This came amid concerns that advisory firms were encouraging companies to claim for work, which didn’t count as pure R&D. Despite the British Government getting set to impose greater scrutiny here, its support for R&D tax credits is unlikely to dissipate, especially with the UK having just completed its withdrawal of the EU.

Indeed, the new Boris Johnson-led administration has stated that it will review the definition of R&D, mainly to further incentivise cloud computing and data projects. It has also announced it will increase the R&D Expenditure Credit available for large companies and grant-funded projects. Potential abuse of R&D tax relief claims is, however, likely to be subject to much closer scrutiny going forward. To assist this process, one of the areas that the Government should be focused on is tougher regulation for those who advise companies on R&D tax relief.

Whilst there are a number of good, tax focused, R&D advisors operating within the UK, there are also a number of ‘experts’ who resort to cold-calling and wrongly advising that a company can easily qualify for relief. HMRC can take their time opening enquiries into a company’s tax affairs and any erroneous claim will be required to be repaid, along with potential penalties and interest. It will also likely be a red mark in any due diligence process, should it wish to be sold in future.

While other business advisory professionals, such as accountants and lawyers, must rightly conform to regulation and governance from their respective industry bodies, there is currently no such body to regulate R&D specialists. New regulation in this area would help to ensure companies are not put in risk at making an illegitimate claim.

Time will tell if the UK’s R&D tax credit crackdown will prove to be as harsh as what occurred in Australia.  There is, however, no doubt that companies need to consider whether they meet HMRC’s definitions as set out in the tax legislation and guidance with sufficient back up to support their claim. For those companies that are unsure of this process it is important they work with a credible and established adviser, ideally one that is currently governed by an industry code of conduct.

Grants v R&D tax credits – How to have your cake and eat it too!

In this blog David Philp in our Entrepreneurial Tax Team highlights how receiving grants can restrict a company’s ability to claim other tax reliefs such as R&D tax credits.


Grants form a vital part in the startup lifecycle, providing critical financial support to innovative companies. They give companies cash at a time when they are unlikely to have profits or even an income stream. The cash can be used to invest in further development, or to just keep the lights on for another couple of months.

However, as the saying goes “you don’t get anything for free” – receiving a grant could restrict the company’s ability to claim further tax reliefs and incentives.

Research & Development (R&D) Tax Relief (further info can be found here) is one of the most generous corporation tax breaks available, designed to encourage innovation and increase spending on R&D activities. It provides vital funds to startups in the early years of their development. There are two R&D schemes that run in parallel: the SME scheme and the RDEC scheme.

To qualify for the SME scheme, the company must have fewer than 500 employees and either have an annual turnover of less than €100m or gross assets of less than €86m. The SME scheme is by far the more beneficial out of the two available. For every £1 the company spends on qualifying R&D costs, the company can receive 33.35p in tax credits. This is a significantly higher level of relief than the level available under the RDEC scheme, which provides an 8.8p (which for expenditure after 31/3/17, increases to a whopping 8.9p) tax credit for every £1 spent on qualifying R&D costs (there are also further restrictions on what expenditure qualifies under the RDEC scheme).

The main issue that arises is that, as the SME scheme is so advantageous, the relief itself is deemed to be Notified State Aid. A Notified State Aid is one where the European Commission has been notified of the grant’s existence. In a bid to guarantee a level playing field for European businesses, the European Commission restricts Notified State Aids to one per project. That means if the company has already received Notified State Aid for a project, that project will not qualify under the SME scheme.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to repay the Notified State Aid. Once received, the project is automatically excluded from claiming R&D tax relief under the SME scheme.

This can have a disastrous effect to the availability of future relief for the company, which is best shown by the example below. Let’s assume that a loss-making fintech company (SME) is developing a single R&D project, spending £250,000 on R&D-qualifying staff costs and £70,000 on costs which were subcontracted to another company. To help with cashflow they also applied for a grant of £40,000.

Option A Option B
No Grant Received £40,000 Notified State Aid Received
Loss Making
Qualifying Costs
Staff costs 250,000 250,000
Subcontractor costs (SME – restricted to 65%, RDEC Scheme – ineligble) 45,000 0
Less: Grant received (ineligible under SME Scheme, instead eligible under the RDEC scheme) 0 0
Qualifying costs under the SME scheme 295,500 0
Qualifying costs under the RDEC scheme 0 250,000
Tax Relief
SME scheme – tax credit worth 33.35% of qualifying costs 98,549 0
RDEC scheme – tax credit worth 8.8% of qualifying costs (subject to restrictions) 0 22,000
Grant received 0 40,000
Total relief (R&D and Grant) 98,549 62,000


You can see that, if the grant was Notified State Aid, it would significantly restrict the total relief available to the company. In this instance, the company would have been in a better position had it not taken the “free money”. This also restricts relief for future periods. Therefore, it is imperative to consider all your options before accepting cash in a form of a grant.

There are, however, a couple of things that you can do to avoid any potential pitfalls. By following the tips below it is possible to maximise your claim by combining both grants and R&D tax relief:

Know what type of grant your applying for – firstly, not all grants are classed as Notified State Aid and, as such, not all grants will land you in the less advantageous RDEC scheme. De-Minimis aid, which can distribute up to €200,000 worth of funding, is not classed as Notified State Aid and will therefore not force the project into the RDEC scheme. In this instance, it is possible to split relief over the two schemes: subsidised expenditure would fall under the RDEC scheme while the remaining unfunded expenditure will remain qualifying under the SME scheme, as seen in Option C below.


Option A Option B Option C
No Grant Received £40,000 Notified State Aid Received £40,000 De-Minimis Aid Received
Loss making
Qualifying Costs
Staff Costs 250,000 250,000 250,000
Subcontractor costs (SME – restricted to 65%, RDEC Scheme – ineligible 45,500 0 45,500
Less: Grant received (ineligble under SME Scheme, instead eligible under the RDEC scheme)                              0                                                      0                                          -40,000
Qualifying costs under the SME scheme 295,500 0 255,500
Qualifying costs under the RDEC scheme 0 250,000 40,000
Tax Relief
SME scheme – tax credit worth 33.35% of qualifying costs 98,549 0 85,209
RDEC scheme – tax credit worth 8.8% of qualifying costs (subject to restrictions) 0 22,000 3,520
Grant received 0 40,000 40,000
Total relief (R&D and Grant) 98,549 62,000 128,729


Determine what project the grant relates to – the rules apply on a project by project basis, not on the total R&D work undertaken in the year. If you have received Notified State Aid in relation to one project, this does not affect your ability to claim under the SME scheme for any remaining projects. Likewise, if you have received Notified State Aid in relation to non-R&D activities, this will not affect your SME claim.

Look at the long-term implications – remember, once you have received Notified State Aid in relation to a project, that’s it: there is no way back. Try to consider the long-term implication of receiving the grant and how it will affect future claims. Taking a small £10,000 grant at the early stages of a R&D project may help cashflow in the short term, however this could also affect the ability to claim R&D tax relief in future years.

Speak to people who know R&D tax relief – I might be slightly biased here but R&D tax relief is an ever-changing, complex area of legislation and it really does pay to speak to an expert to ensure that you are maximising your claim, whilst also planning ahead to avoid any potential pitfalls.  A quick chat at the beginning of a project can provide you with a clear and proactive action plan, leaving you with more time to run your business!

If you have any queries about R&D tax relief, Notified State Aid or De-Minimis State Aid related to investment, contact David Philp today at entrepreneur@chiene.co.uk.